Based on the 2004 novel by British writer Deborah Moggach, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a lovely mess of a movie. Although the story is narrowly set in Jaipur, capital city of the Indian state of Rajasthan, and England, the film’s tone moves all over the place. The plot’s many pieces, too, don’t always fit well together. All of which makes the movie’s sequence of events involving many principal characters a sometimes bumpy ride.
Despite shortcomings, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its golden ensemble of British actors, beautifully staged individual scenes and a funny performance from Indian actor Dev Patel make this tragicomedy travelogue worth a visit.
Patel, star of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, plays Sonny Kapoor, a young man in Jaipur who’s inherited a once glamorous hotel from his father. Sonny has a grand vision for his faded property. He wants to transform the in-disrepair structure into a luxurious retirement community for, as he expresses it, the elderly and beautiful.
In far-off England, seven British citizens in their elder years sign up to be Sonny’s first residents. They’re all at crossroads in their lives, jumping-off points that lead them to make such a drastic decision.
When the seven arrive at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, most of them are alarmed, one of them is horrified, that the facility is a work in progress. For instance, there’s no door on Madge Hardcastle’s room. So she simply tells Sonny she’ll take his room, which does have a door. As for other inconveniences, no land-line phones work in the building. There are electricity issues, too, a potentially sticky dilemma in the region’s extreme heat and humidity.
Patel’s Sonny, a frantically enthusiastic, optimistic young fellow, puts the happiest face on every problem he and his guests encounter.
“In India, we have a saying,” Sonny explains to his shell-shocked guests. “Everything will be all right in the end. So, if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.”
The movie’s British cast includes Maggie Smith, the 77-year-old actress who, after winning two Oscars and Emmy and Tony awards and appearing in the Harry Potter movies, may be more popular than ever thanks to her role as Violet Crawley, the dowager countess of Grantham in the TV series Downton Abbey.
It’s a treat to see Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but her character, Muriel Donnelly, a coldly sent-to-pasture housekeeper, is among the movie’s less well-written parts. Tom Wilkinson, playing lonely former high court judge Graham Dashwood, has a more complete, coherent part. His character, enhanced by the secret he carries with him to India, has the film’s most dramatic scenes.
There’s much tension between Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton as Douglas and Jean Ainslie, a couple that, following a perhaps unwise investment in their daughter’s fledging Internet company, seeks retirement on the cheap in India. Their big scene is stagy, but it still scores a run.
Also on this passage to India are Judi Dench as the widowed, financially devastated Evelyn Greenslade, and Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie as still frisky older singles Norman Cousins and Madge.
As the drama and comedy plays among the Brits, a parallel rich boy, poor girl story involving Patel’s Sonny and Tena Desae’s Sunaina, the young woman from a lower caste whom Sonny loves, unfolds its old-fashioned but, in the context of a modernizing India, believable developments.
Even if, as movie critics say, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s amenities are wildly uneven, there’s enough fun and poignancy here to earn the property three stars.
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